He buys some time with a long chug on the water bottle. “Uhh, I guess either.”
“Is . . . she seeing anyone?” I ask.
“Why?” Alex says. “I didn’t think you even liked her.”
“Yeah,” I say, embarrassment coursing through my veins like a quick-hitting drug. “But you did, so I want to make sure you’re okay.”
“I’m okay,” he says, but he sounds uncomfortable so I drop it.
No shitting on Ohio, no talking about Alex’s ridiculously fit body, no looking him deep in the eyes from fewer than six inches away, and no bringing up Sarah Torval.
I can do that. Probably.
“Should we get in the water?” I ask.
But as we pick our way through the herd of babies to move down the whitewashed pool steps, it rapidly becomes clear that this isn’t the solution to the touch-and-go awkwardness between us. For one thing, the water, with all the many bodies standing (and potentially peeing) in it, feels nearly as hot as the air and somehow even more unpleasant.
For another thing, it’s so crowded that we have to stand so close that the upper two-thirds of our bodies are almost touching. When a stocky man in a camo hat pushes past me, I collide with Alex and a lightning bolt of panic sizzles through me at the feeling of his slick stomach against mine. He catches me by the hips, at once steadying me and easing me away, back to my rightful place two inches away from him.
“You okay?” he asks.
“Mm-hm,” I say, because all I can really focus on is the way his hands spread over my hip bones. I expect there to be a lot of that on this trip. The mm-hming, not the gigantic Alex-hands on my hips.
He lets go of me and cranes his neck over his shoulder, looking back to our lounges. “Maybe we should just read until it’s less crowded,” he suggests.
“Good idea.” I follow him in a zigzagging path back to the pool steps, to the burning-hot cement, to the too-short towels spread on the chaises, where we lie down to wait. He pulls out a Sarah Waters novel, which he finishes, then follows with an Augustus Everett book. I take out the latest issue of R+R, planning to skim everything I didn’t write. Maybe I’ll find a spark of inspiration I can take back to Swapna so she won’t be mad at me.
I pretend to read for two sweaty hours and the pool never empties out.
* * *
• • •
AS SOON AS we open the door to the apartment, I know things are going to get worse.
“What the hell,” Alex says, following me inside. “Did it get hotter?”
I hurry to the thermostat and read the numbers illuminated there. “Eighty-two?!”
“Maybe we’re pushing it too hard?” Alex suggests, coming to stand beside me. “Let’s see if we can get it back down to eighty at least.”
“I know eighty is, technically speaking, better than eighty-two, Alex,” I say, “but we’re still going to murder each other if we have to sleep in eighty-degree heat.”
“Should we call someone?” Alex asks.
“Yes! We should definitely call someone! Good thinking!” I rifle through the beach bag for my phone and search my email for the host’s phone number. I hit call, and it rings three times before a gruff, smoky voice comes over the line. “Yeah?”
Two seconds of silence. “Who is this?”
“This is Poppy Wright. I’m staying in 4B?”
“We’re having some trouble with the thermostat.”
Three seconds of silence this time. “Did you try Googling it?”
I ignore the question and forge ahead. “It was set to eighty degrees when we got here. We tried to turn it down to seventy two hours ago and now it’s eighty-two.”
“Oh, yeah,” Nikolai says. “You’re pushing it too hard.”
I guess Alex can hear what Nikolai’s saying, because he nods, like, Told you.
“So . . . it can’t handle . . . going colder than seventy-eight?” I say. “Because that wasn’t in the posting, and neither was the construction outside the—”
“It can only do a degree at a time, honey,” Nikolai says with a beleaguered sigh. “You can’t just push a thermostat down to seventy degrees! And who keeps an apartment seventy degrees anyway?”
Alex and I exchange a look. “Sixty-seven,” he whispers.
Sixty-five, I mouth, gesturing to myself. “Well—”
“Look, look, look, honey.” Nikolai cuts me off again. “Turn it down to eighty-one. When it gets down to eighty-one, turn it down to eighty. Then turn it down to seventy-nine, and when it gets down to seventy-nine, you set it to seventy-eight. And once it’s seventy-eight—”
“—go ahead and just cut off your own head,” Alex whispers, and I pull the phone away from me before Nikolai can hear me laugh.
I drag it back to my cheek, and Nikolai’s still explaining how to count backward from eighty-two. “Got it,” I say. “Thanks.”
“No prob,” Nikolai says with another sigh. “Have a good stay, honey.”
As I hang up, Alex crosses back to the thermostat and turns it back up to eighty-one. “Here goes literally nothing.”
“If we can’t get it to work . . .” I trail off as the full force of our situation hits me. I was going to say that, if we couldn’t get it to work, I’d just book us a hotel room with the R+R card.
But of course we can’t.
I could put it on my own credit card, but, living in New York, in a too-nice-for-me apartment, I don’t actually have a ton of expendable income. The perks of my job are arguably the biggest form of income. I could try to score us a room through an advertising trade, but I’ve been slacking on my social media and blogging, and I’m not sure I still have enough clout. Besides, a lot of places won’t do that with influencers. Some will even screenshot your email requests and post them online to shame you. It’s not like I’m George Clooney. I’m just some girl who takes pretty pictures—I might be able to land us a discount; a free room’s unlikely.